The first half of 2020 was a turbulent time for the people of Australia and the renewable energy industry wasn’t immune to the effects of the global pandemic. All over the world supply chains were disrupted. The sudden fall in energy demand along with a significant reduction in wholesale electricity prices made it impossible to plan for the long-term. The industry had no choice but to wait and see the degree to which the Covid-19 pandemic would impact them.
Before 2020 even began Australia was suffering a shocking bushfire season. While the world looked on in horror Australia was forced to look at the most compelling cause for the fires, climate change. The New South Wales energy minister, Matt Kean, spoke out at the Smart Energy Summit in mid-December 2019 with a message that reverberated all through 2020. With a backdrop of smoke from the bushfires surrounding Sydney permeating the hotel conference room where the summit was being held, Matt Kean said:
“This is not normal and doing nothing is not a solution. We need to reduce our carbon emissions immediately”.
Only a couple of months after Matt Kean made this speech the world was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the pandemic did not have the negative effect on the renewable industry that might have been expected. The second half of 2020 saw Australia turning its attention to how the role of renewable energy could play its part in repairing the economic damage caused by the pandemic. This resulted in a flurry of new announcements being made at the end of 2020 by state and territory governments, who realised the opportunity of using renewable energy to lead their economic recoveries from the pandemic.
The most noteworthy actions were taken in New South Wales where Matt Kean committed to supporting new generation worth $32 billion and delivering 12GW of new renewable energy generation as well as 2GW of energy storage. Victoria made big commitments to expand the Solar Homes Programme, develop 6 renewable energy zones and build a huge new battery for Geelong. In order not to be left behind Tasmania legislated its 200% renewable energy target, Queensland committed to developing three new zones and appointed a minister for renewables and hydrogen and many other states and territories assigned significant funding to the ongoing development of renewable energy projects in their budgets.
Interestingly, Kean’s ambitious moves received very little resistance from the conservative media. It would seem that it is now politically safe to pursue clean energy.
In what was a truly outstanding achievement the industry did not only overcome the challenges it had faced but was able to come out of 2020 in a stronger position and with significant momentum heading into 2021. 2020 turned out to be a breakthrough year for the Australian renewable industry.
According to analysis at the end of 2020, wind and solar power was growing to such an extent that it was taking over from fossil fuel generation and cutting Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions more than the Covid-19 pandemic.
The analysis revealed that emissions from gas use and transport in the 12 months ending in July 2020 fell by almost 14 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents which is a drop of 4.6% on the previous 12 months.
Though fewer plane flights contributed to the sharp fall in aviation fuel use the main reason for the overall fall in emissions was taken up by wind and solar power displacing coal in the national energy market.
In the 12 months to the end of September 2020, renewable energy’s share of electricity generation reached a record 26.5% across the five states that form the national energy market.
The residential solar sector surpassed all previous records due no doubt to families being housebound and in part to yet another year of falling system costs.
In earlier years, renewable generation exceeded South Australia’s total demand for moments but in 2020 it did so for 10% of the year.
Renewable energy’s share of the demand for electricity continued to break records in 2020. During the middle of the day on 10 October, renewable generation, including rooftop solar, reached a record-high maximum of 53.6% of total demand for electricity.
Electricity generated by burning black coal reached a record low of 40.5% of generation across the national market.
The national electricity market is made up of Queensland, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania and supplies about 9 million customers.
The data used in the analysis, produced for the progressive thinktank the Australia Institute, includes electricity generation in the national market, as well as consumption of gas and petroleum fuels.
Australia Institute’s climate and energy program director, Richie Merzian told Guardian Australia:
“Renewables in Australia are now cheaper and more popular than fossil fuels, and we expect a lot more renewables coming online soon.”
More and more countries committed to net-zero emissions throughout 2020 such as China, Japan, and South Korea, all setting targets to decarbonise their economies. As a result, more than 70% of Australia’s trade partners have now set a net-zero emissions target for 2050 or 2060. Pressure is growing on the Morrison government to increase Australia’s climate change ambitions as more decisive international action is taken. The threat of carbon border taxes means that it is more likely that the Australian government will join states and territories in setting a target of net-zero emissions by 2050.
Important progress was made in electricity market reform in 2020 with the release of the Australian Energy Market Operator’s 2020 Integrated System Plan and the Energy Security Board’s (ESB) Post-2025 Market Design Consultation Paper. These two initiatives support a comprehensive long-term vision of Australia’s future electricity system in which large-scale renewable energy and energy storage is complemented by a vibrant market of rooftop solar, home batteries and electric vehicles.
There are definitely reasons to be optimistic about the future of Australia’s renewable energy industry as the trend is firmly set for continued growth in renewable energy generation as more wind and solar power comes online.
Written by Janet Richardson on behalf of The Renewable Energy Hub